Roberto Carlos did not have time to think, only to react instinctively, to do what needed to be done, what anybody would have done. As such, he does not want to be considered a hero. But that is not how Ronaldo saw it, how he continues to see it, even after all these years.
“Roberto saved my life that day,” Ronaldo says, and he is talking about what happened on the afternoon of the 1998 World Cup final, which has gone down as one of the great dramas in the tournament’s history, one of its great mysteries, too.
Ronaldo’s soundbite is a standout moment from Brazil 2002: The Real Story, the documentary that charts the Seleção’s fifth World Cup triumph, although there are plenty of others.
Through the dim and distant, everybody remembers the broad brushstrokes of the story: how Ronaldo suffered a seizure before the game against France in Paris and was taken to hospital for tests, which proved inconclusive. He was out of the starting lineup, then reinstated at the last before he underperformed in the shattering 3-0 defeat.
The life-or-death aspect for Ronaldo does not seem to have been the headline item it should have. Perhaps it once was, only to be overtaken – after it was clear that Ronaldo was perfectly fine – by all of the theories about why he began to convulse so frighteningly, teeth locked together, mouth foaming. Or maybe it never really was.
Roberto Carlos has his memories of it. Will they ever fade? He was Ronaldo’s roommate in 1998; they would always room together. In Roberto Carlos’s words, they are “blood brothers”. But one comment he makes hits with the force of a wrecking ball. Thank goodness he was there to scream for help when Ronaldo was stricken before he went for his power nap.
“It could have been something worse if there was not someone in the room with him,” Roberto Carlos says. “Today, the players don’t share rooms, so …”
Roberto Carlos is looking forward to the World Cup in Qatar, believing that Brazil have the quality and character to reach the final and, hopefully, win it for a sixth time. But it is inevitable that his mind goes back to 2002, when he was a key part of the team that beat Germany in the final in Japan, particularly as the documentary – which he watched at a screening in London at the end of September – recalls everything so vividly.
The 1998 final is also in his thoughts, the despair before the joy, the event that cast Brazil as avengers. It had to have been emotional for Roberto Carlos to hear Ronaldo say that he saved him.
“For me, it was so simple to take care of Ronaldo,” he says. “We were sharing a room and it was something natural, instinctive. ‘OK, there is something happening, I need to help, to call a doctor and get the situation sorted out.’ I just shouted for the doctor and the players who were in the rooms nearby, Leonardo, Edmundo …
“For Brazil, the World Cup is the peak for our country as a culture. When we lost in 1998, and the way that we lost, you feel like rubbish. You know that you have 200 million people who you disappoint. The camp for that tournament lasted 53 days – 52 were amazing and then one day destroyed everything.
“In 2002, we did the same things that we had done four years previously. The only difference was in the last day when we won and this changed everything.
“Actually, there was another difference. We didn’t allow Ronaldo to sleep on the day of the final.”
The documentary draws on camcorder footage shot at the time by one of the squad, Juliano Belletti, the former Barcelona and Chelsea defender, and interviews with the various protagonists. There are shades of Goodfellas when some of the players are introduced, the rawness and intimacy of Belletti’s material getting straight to a time and a place; a feeling, too – one of fun and friendship, song and samba beats on the team bus.
“We thought that Belletti was nuts,” Roberto Carlos says. “Every time he was recording, we were like: ‘What the fuck are you doing? Stop with that! Where’s our privacy?’ People were making fun of him. But now we see it and we say: ‘Thank God Belletti got all this footage for us.’ We need to congratulate him because he was ahead of his time, creating spectacular content.
“I think the most important part of what Belletti captured was how you can bring together top talents to create a champion squad. It’s not only the football, it’s everything that happens off the pitch, as well. We were a band of brothers together.
“We’re all still in touch, the whole squad. We have a WhatsApp group – Campeões do Penta – and it’s very active every day. One of the guys will say: ‘Good morning,’ and then the chat starts. About the Brazilian league, the Premier League, La Liga, everything. And random things, too.”
Brazil being Brazil, there was a parliamentary inquiry into the defeat in the 1998 final, which was set in train by Zinedine Zidane’s two goals for France. The players – including Roberto Carlos – were called to give evidence. It was to look into alleged corruption on the part of the team sponsor, Nike, or anyone else and it came to embrace the ridiculous.
“Politics,” Roberto Carlos says, laughing. “Even for us, it was a funny thing. They asked me: ‘Why did you lose the final?’ And I said: ‘Because Zizou scored twice with his head. There’s nothing else to tell you guys.’ It was a circus.”
The scene after the 2002 triumph, when Ronaldo scored both goals in the final to finesse one of the great comeback narratives, was at the other end of the spectrum. A quartet of fighter jets from the Brazilian air force arrived to escort the team plane down into Brasilia airport and Belletti zooms in on one of the pilots, who waves back. There is then a message from the squadron that is patched in over the intercom. “Getting over the odds,” the voice crackles. “Welcome home … five-time world champions.” Try watching that with dry eyes.
“It’s very rare that fighter jets follow a plane,” Roberto Carlos says. “Usually it’s for the president of a country, so at that moment we started to realise how important it was for the country, all the meaning of that title. It was extremely emotional and watching the documentary brought it all back.
“Can I comprehend what we did in 2002? Honestly no, not yet. Football is wonderful and that was a one-of-a-kind moment for me. I just hope that Brazil can win in Qatar and all of us can have that feeling again.”
Tite’s squad are the favourites with many bookmakers and when Roberto Carlos runs through the players he expects to make the difference – many of them high-calibre attackers – it is apparent why.
“Thiago Silva, Neymar, Vinícius Júnior, Rodrygo, Casemiro, Raphinha, Pedro,” he says, and he could have added Gabriel Jesus, Anthony, Gabriel Martinelli and Richarlison. “Pedro is a player who helped a lot for Flamengo when they won the Copa Libertadores last month. He plays as a typical No 9, the guy inside the box, and we don’t have many of this kind of player at the moment. With a good goalkeeper and a good striker, we have a chance. Alisson, for me, is one of the best goalkeepers in the world.
“With Neymar, the most important thing is that he doesn’t care or pay any attention to what people say about him away from the pitch. He has to give his best and that’s it. If he wins, he will be the best. If he loses, then the critics come. He has to accept that this is football.”
Roberto Carlos works these days as an ambassador for Real Madrid – the club where he won four league titles and three Champions League trophies – and also for the Fifa Legends programme. “I’m working more than when I used to play,” he says, with a smile. Seriously? “Very seriously.”
What he wants to see in the coming weeks is a Brazil team that embraces its destiny. The wait for a sixth star on their shirts has been too long.
“When Brazil play a World Cup, they have to be in the final,” Roberto Carlos says. “This squad has great players and I believe they can get there. Brazil have five stars on their shirt so the weight of it is always the same. It’s about who has the balls to wear the yellow shirt. All of these players do.”